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What's Going on in Colombia?

The conflict in Colombia has established itself as the longest and one of the most complex armed conflicts in the world. Since colonial times, the country's history has been marked by violence, a racist violence that has led to extreme inequality in the distribution of wealth. This inequality in Colombia persists to this day and is a central point in the numerous violent clashes.

An illustrated map on which political struggles in Colombia are symbolically represented.
Between 1985 and 2018 alone, over 450,000 people were killed in the context of the conflict. 90% of them were civilians. In total, about 20% of the population became direct victims of the conflict. Over one million people fled Colombia between 1982 and 2020. Nearly 8 million people were internally displaced within Colombia during this period. In total, 121,768 people fell victim to violent kidnappings. //Illustration: Catatumbo, Truth Commission of Colombia, CC-BY-NC-SA-4.0

What Are the Reasons for the Conflict?

Currently, Colombia ranks the worst in terms of unequal land distribution in Latin America, followed by Peru and Chile. Only 1% of landowners cultivate over 80% of the agricultural land throughout the country, while the remaining 99% share only about one-fifth of the land. The extreme concentration of land in the hands of a few and the associated conflicts over land access and ownership are central factors contributing to the ongoing armed conflict in the country.

Since colonial times, the concentration of vast land areas in the hands of a few has been the norm. These ownership structures have been maintained and established through violence, and the violent displacement of small farmers has become commonplace in Colombia over the past centuries. As a result, the vast majority of the rural population, including historically marginalized indigenous and Black communities, has been dispossessed, leading to the impoverishment of large segments of the population. This cycle of poverty has solidified over generations. Any attempts to change these conditions have been met with violence and brutally suppressed by those in power.

Part of the country is considered relevant only in terms of its natural resources. This has led to a development model based on extractivism and the violent enforcement of policies favoring this model. Social leaders and communities who resisted this development model and defended their territories have become victims of numerous human rights violations.

A Country of Internally Displaced Persons

At the end of 2021, Colombia ranked third among the countries with the most internally displaced persons in the world, after Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are around 8,000,000 internally displaced people in Colombia.


Who Is Responsible?

Both state and illegal armed actors bear responsibility of this, but so do large landowners, cattle ranchers and large agricultural business owners who have appropriated millions of hectares of land through threats, forced purchases and massacres.


Neglected street in the outskirts of the city
The majority of displaced people came to the country's major urban centers, largely without the support of state institutions. As a result, slum-like neighborhoods with extremely poor living conditions have gradually emerged on the outskirts of cities, where residents lack access to basic rights such as food, healthcare, and education. Young people growing up under these circumstances, marked by a lack of opportunities, often choose a life of crime.

Reasons for the Persistence of the Conflict

The reasons for the ongoing conflict lie in the lack of political will to implement measures for fundamental changes that would lead to a fairer distribution and access to resources and basic rights. There is a powerful economic and political elite that resists democratic opening. They combat social and political processes challenging their privileges by any means necessary, both legal and illegal. Left-wing sectors, activists, trade unionists, human rights defenders, as well as students, indigenous peoples, and Afro-Colombians who organize politically to demand their rights to participation, have been systematically persecuted, criminalized, and murdered for decades.

In addition, the drug trade emerged in the 1970s, involving various actors in the conflict. Drug trafficking became part of the war economy, and gradually, a culture of organized crime took hold in the country, introducing brutal practices. While the drug trade is not the root cause of the conflict, it has been a key factor in its escalation and expansion.

Actors of the Conflict

Armed conflicts in the streets between various different actors.
Numerous actors are involved in the Colombian conflict. It is sometimes difficult to draw clear boundaries between the various actors. Often, the lines between these actors are blurred, and in many cases, members switch from one group to another. Both legal and illegal armed actors are responsible for severe human rights violations.//Foto: Agencia Prensa Rural. CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0 Photo: Agencia Prensa Rural. CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0

The Guerrillas

The founding of the guerrillas is connected to social, economic and political exclusion and the lack of spaces for political participation. There were numerous guerrillas in Colombia throughout the 20th century. The most well-known among them are the FARC-EP, the ELN, the EPL, and the M-19. They are all left-wing guerrillas, most of whom were founded in the 1960s and 1970s.


Different Groups, One Struggle

The guerrillas shared an ideological commitment to the anti-capitalist struggle and formed the National Guerrilla Coordinating Board Simón Bolívar in the 1980s. The FARC-EP, ELN, EPL, M-19, Quintín Lame Armed Movement, and the Revolutionary Workers' Party (PTR) collaborated for almost a decade.


Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - People's Army (FARC-EP)






Member of the Farc sitting on a chair.
The FARC-EP was founded in 1964 as a peasant self-defense group. It had a Marxist-Leninist ideology and its military strategy consisted mainly of guerrilla warfare. Its beginnings lie in the liberal guerrillas of the 1950s. The founders of the FARC were farmers who, in the face of violence, repression, and displacement, came together as a guerrilla group to fight for their rights. Their goal was to redistribute existing wealth. The FARC was active throughout the country. By the early 2000s, the FARC controlled about 40% of the national territory, and in 2007 had around 18,000 members. The FARC was the oldest guerrilla group in the world until it signed a peace treaty with the Colombian government in 2016, laid down its weapons and began the process of reintegration into civilian life. The former FARC founded the FARC party and was renamed Comunes in 2021.

However, a minority of FARC members subsequently took up arms again and founded the guerrilla group "FARC-EP", the second "Marquetalia" in response to the government's non-implementation of the agreement and the systematic murder of former guerilla fighters. These groups are known as dissidents.


A poster of the ELN saying "ELN - ni rendicion ni entrega"
The Colombian National Liberation Army (ELN) was founded in 1965 under the influence of the Cuban Revolution (1959). Their ideology was nourished by Christian elements of liberation theology. In contrast to the FARC, which has a strong vertical and centralised structure, the ELN is very decentralised. The ELN is associated with a more urban, student and trade union milieu. The main goal of this armed group is to influence the local and regional powers. The ELN mainly attacks infrastructure facilities in the oil industry and mining. Currently, the ELN has around 2,500 members. Photo: Julián Ortega Martínez, CC BY SA 2.0

The M-19 (19th of April Movement)

The M-19 was founded in 1970 as a result of a declared presidential election fraud that took place in the same year. It differed from other subversive movements because it was primarily an urban guerrilla group, with many of its members coming from an academic middle-class background. It identified itself as an anti-oligarchic and anti-imperialist movement. After a peace agreement in 1990, they formed the political party Alianza Democrática M-19. Some notable politicians, including the current President of Colombia, Gustavo Petro, were members of the M-19.


The National People's Liberation Army (EPL)

The EPL (National People's Liberation Army) was founded in 1966 and had a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideology. The majority of its members laid down their arms in 1991 and founded the "Esperanza, Paz y Libertad" party.

The Paramilitaries

Paramilitarism is not just an armed actor. It is a military, political, and societal right-wing extremist project that has been largely driven by the assassination of left-wing politicians and social activists. It has close connections to drug trafficking and drug cartels. Paramilitarism is the most violent actor in the Colombian conflict and is responsible for the majority of human rights violations.

Paramilitary structures emerged at the beginning of the 20th century, as the armed wing of the Conservative Party.  Paramilitary groups expanded in the 1980s under the guise of counterinsurgency. They served as private armies of politicians and large landowners, defended the preservation of economic, political and social privileges, sought the expansion of private property and revenues through land grabbing and murder. They enforced territorial control through the eradication of opposing armed groups and a violent form of social control.

A graffiti saying "AGC en paro" - "AGC unemployed"
In the 1990s, the various paramilitary groups joined forces and created the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Around 30,000 AUC fighters laid down their arms between 2003 and 2006 as part of a demobilisation process. However, many of its members regrouped into post-paramilitary groups, the so-called BACRIM (criminal gangs). They operate as drug cartels under various names, such as Águilas Negras, Autodefensas Gaitanistas (AGC), Clan del Golfo, Los Rastrojos or Los Caparros. The demobilization of paramilitary groups has been heavily questioned.

The State

The state plays a significant role in the development and perpetuation of the armed conflict in Colombia. Historically, it has systematically employed illegitimate violence to stop democratization processes. It is responsible for numerous human rights violations and has always portrayed them as collateral damage of the "fight against terrorism".


Two armed soldiers
The Colombian state, through its actions and omissions, has tolerated the development of paramilitarism. It bears a structural responsibility for the emergence of paramilitary structures. Various governments, political elites, and the military have cooperated with paramilitarism over the past decades, downplayed its significance, and provided justification for its actions. In connection with the statements made by paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso before the Transitional Justice for Peace, a lot of information was cited about the assassinations and massacres, as well as about the creation of new armed paramilitary blocs with state support, funding and cooperation. Drawing clear boundaries between paramilitarism and the state can be difficult. Foto: F Delventhal, CC BY SA 2.0

One of the worst systematic human rights violations by the state is the eradication of the left-wing party Union Patriótica (UP) after its founding in 1985. Furthermore, the Colombian state is accountable under the law for the extrajudicial execution of at least 6,402 civilians, which were violently carried out by the army between 2002 and 2008. Additionally, numerous individuals were deceived and captured, murdered, and later presented as guerrilla fighters killed in combat.


The Civil Society

Rally by the Unión Patriótica (UP)
Civil society has also played an important role throughout the history of the conflict. Collectives, organizations, local councils, social leaders, students, teachers, workers, etc., are fighting for their rights and resisting in the territories. They have also made the conflict and the corresponding dimensions visible. An active militancy of civil society was brutally crushed by the state and paramilitaries. More than six thousand members of the Unión Patriótica (UP) alliance were murdered, including presidential candidates. This crime was officially declared a crime against humanity, but remains unpunished to this day. // Photo: Semanario Voz, CC BY NC SA 2.0

Entrepreneurs and Big Landowners

Big business owners, landowners, and cattle ranchers have directly participated in and benefited from the Colombian conflict. In particular, social groups that had accumulated land and property have enriched themselves or gained political power through dispossession, economic activities related to the armed conflict, and the drug trade. In the official hearing on the Contribution to the Truth before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) in April 2023, former paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso confirmed the cooperation of national and multinational companies such as Coca-Cola, Postobón, Bavaria and Ecopetrol with the paramilitaries to carry out the assassination of trade unionists or acquire land. Similar agreements have been reported involving operators of palm oil, banana, sugarcane plantations, and mines.


Mafia Structures and Drug Cartels

Mug shot of Pablo Escobar
In the 1970s and 1980s, drug cartels were mainly concentrated in the cities, the most famous being the Medellín Cartel and the Cali Cartel. They co-opted the Colombian state and collaborated with paramilitary groups. They are responsible for a large number of political persecutions, murders and expulsions. These cartels were dissolved in the 1990s, but after this time the cultivation of coca plantations increased enormously. After the collapse of the cartels, new groups have emerged, some of which have relocated their activities to Central America and Mexico. // Photo: Pablo Escobar, National Police of Colombia, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The involvement of the guerrillas in the drug trade was primarily related to the production process of cocaine. The guerrillas financed themselves by charging fees for guarding illegal crops, taxing laboratories and using illegal runways. The paramilitary groups have had a direct link to drug trafficking since their collaboration with the Medellín Cartel and the Cali Cartel in the 1980s. Drug trafficking serves as a source of funding for both guerrillas and paramilitaries in the armed conflict.


Internationalization of the Conflict

The Colombian conflict can only be understood when placed in a global context. This context of the Cold War and the anti-communist struggle and resistance in various parts of the world not only provided ideological references and economic resources but also exerted significant pressure from the beginning of the conflict, which contributed to its escalation.

The state's claim of communist influence in the uprisings of April 11, 1948 made it possible to give a real dimension to the so-called communist threat in Latin America, demonstrating the need for a continental anti-communist policy. In line with US geopolitical goals, it was believed that the USSR and communism posed a serious threat to Western and Christian civilization. A system of intergovernmental anti-communist alliances was developed, consistent with the Truman Doctrine and officially coordinated through the Pan-American system, the OAS, the Inter-American Treaty on Mutual Assistance (TIAR) and the Alliance for Progress (Alianza para el progreso), launched in 1961. Colombia was the only country in the region, in addition to severing diplomatic relations with the USSR, to break off relations with Cuba when the revolution triumphed. (Ramírez, 2004, 183; Rodríguez 2005; López-Meneses, 2017; Ojeda Awad, 2014)

The Armed Forces of Colombia were trained at the School of the Americas in the United States from the point of view of national security and the internal enemy, as a result of which internal social conflicts were considered exclusively as a result of the penetration of international communism. After the end of the Cold War and the National Front in Colombia, the anti-communist struggle in Colombia took on alarming dimensions. Within this framework, an extremely violent atmosphere was created in which paramilitaries, in collaboration with state forces and with US funding, carried out the extermination of over 6,000 communist militants and fighters of the Colombian Communist Party (PACOCOL), its coalition of social movements Unión Patriótica (UP) and the allied guerrillas and peasant groups.

Both internal and external actors have sought two types of international collaboration: firstly, political support and recognition from abroad, and secondly, military and logistical support in the war. On an international level, Colombia holds high geostrategic and economic relevance. It has coastlines on both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and shares a border with Venezuela, a country that has been a thorn in the side of the United States since the late 1990s. Colombia allows the operation of nine U.S. military bases on its territory and has been a constant ally of the U.S. and Europe with its right-wing, neoliberal government, as well as a representative of their economic interests in Latin America.

A change in the political and economic system in favor of the majority would have a direct impact on the neo-colonial logic of exploitation between the United States, Europe and Colombia. For this reason, counterinsurgency was vehemently supported by the US and its allies not only financially, but also with training, military support, logistics and strong media propaganda.

People holding a banner saying "Stop US Imperialist agression in Latin America; no to plan colombia; lasoco."
In 2000, under the government of Andrés Pastrana, the "Plan Colombia" was agreed with the United States. 71% of the funds provided went to the military and police. Plan Colombia has been widely criticized for its ineffectiveness and disastrous impact on human rights, health and the environment. The latter was affected, among other things, as a result of the massive use of the herbicides glyphosate. //Photo: Ben Sutherland, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr.

Is Germany Involved?

Germany also has economic interests in Colombia. Germany is Colombia's fifth-largest trading partner and the largest trading partner within the EU under a free trade agreement since 2013. Most recently, in spring 2022, Chancellor Olaf Scholz and then-Colombian President Iván Duque agreed to increase the import of Colombian coal to Germany. This is Germany's way of replacing a portion of its demand for Russian coal.


At Whose Expense?

The largest coal exporters in Colombia have committed numerous human rights and environmental violations, which mainly affect the communities living in the mining areas. After the electoral victory of Gustavo Petro Colombia's first left-wing president in June 2022, he announced a move away from fossil fuel extraction in the country.


Venezuela and Ecuador are important allies in resolving the armed conflict in Colombia. All countries in the region have repeatedly expressed their support for the peace process with the FARC and the associated benefits for the stabilisation of the region. Petro's government officially resumed relations with Venezuela after he took office. In November 2022, the Colombian government resumed peace negotiations with the ELN guerrillas in Venezuela.





Timeline: The History of the Conflict

Chronology of the Conflict

The Geography of the Conflict

The Colombian conflict is not uniformly spread across the national territory and has developed specific dynamics depending on the region. Certain territories have historically been more affected by violence than others. In general, the conflict originated in rural, peripheral and border regions and has since been fought out much more strongly there than in the cities. 63.5% of the victims lived in rural and peripheral areas. There are several reasons for this.

On the one hand, the state is highly centralized and has only a limited presence in the rural zones of the country. Its presence in rural areas has historically been of a military nature. This facilitated the expansion and control of irregular armed forces, who in certain cases acted as substitutes for the state. Many young people join armed groups because of violence, lack of prospects and precariousness.

In the geography of the conflict, we can observe how the intensity of the conflict increases as we approach areas of the country that have more natural resources, as well as the regions with a strong concentration of soil for monocultures, extensive livestock farming and, since the 1980s, illegal crops such as marijuana, coca and poppies. There, tensions between large landowners, large national and international corporations, farmers, local communities, the state, paramilitary groups and guerrilla groups are the order of the day. They are fighting for territorial control and defending their strategic interests.

Areas of High Conflict Intensity

In fact, strategic corridors have emerged throughout the territory of Colombia that play an important role for armed actors, as they provide access to other countries, to areas of legal or illegal exploitation of natural resources, or to areas of illicit cultivation that are the basis of the war economy and the groups that gain control over them,  provide significant benefits. This interactive map, based on information from the Colombian Truth Commission, lists and describes the current strategic corridors.


Strategic Corridors of the Conflict

Current Situation

Peace in Colombia is nowhere to be seen after the peace agreement. In the first half of 2022 alone, over 70,000 people were displaced within Colombia. Since the conclusion of the peace negotiations in 2016 until the end of July 2022, 1,334 activists and 327 former FARC fighters have been murdered in Colombia. Particularly at risk are people who politically oppose mining, energy and agro-industrial projects, as well as municipal representatives who demand the enforcement of their social, cultural and economic rights in their communities.

People standing in line
Almost six years after the agreement, the level of implementation is less than 10%. There is also a serious problem of underfunding the agreement. In recent news reports from the new government, it has been reported that there has been a serious misappropriation of peace funds under the Duque government, which were intended for a period of ten years and were spent for other purposes within four years.
People sitting on chairs
The election of left-wing President Gustavo Petro in 2022 fills the country with hope for structural changes that pave the way towards sustainable peace. For this, a fairer distribution of resources is fundamental, as well as the protection of human rights and the environment as well as a departure from the neoliberal system and its social distortions. As part of the "total peace" law, the Petro government wants to re-establish contact with all armed actors still active and conduct peace negotiations with them. The law was passed in the first hundred days of the new government, as well as a tax reform. The implementation of the peace agreement is a top priority and will be accelerated.
Rally in Colombia on the 7th of march
In the first year of the government of Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez, major reforms were proposed in the areas of pensions, labor, taxes, and healthcare. The mass media, large private pension funds, private healthcare providers (EPS), and big corporations created a narrative of fear and rejection towards these comprehensive reforms.   The opposition, led by supporters of Álvaro Uribe and supported by powerful economic actors, called for the overthrow of the democratically elected government, referring to the current efforts as a "soft coup."   On June 7, 2023, nationwide mass mobilizations were called for to defend the proposed reforms, demand their passage in Congress, and fight back against media manipulation and disinformation. A massive mobilization took place across the country, explicitly supporting the reforms.//Marchas 7 de Junio, Public Domain, via Radio Nacional de Colombia
Gustavo Petro shaking Hands with Lula da Silva
Throughout one year of governance, Colombia has also pursued an intensive international agenda, establishing cooperative relationships with African countries, Spain, Portugal, and numerous Latin American countries. Colombia has once again become an official member of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and is actively engaged in the regional integration agenda. //Lula da Silva y Gustavo Petro, Public Domain, via Presidencia de Colombia


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